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John Paul is well aware that the leading Catholic in Baghdad, the Chaldean Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid, holds that Iraq has an equally "just cause." We may think Iraq's historical claim to Kuwait is nonsense, but that is not self-evident. Raphael may appear as a terrified buffoon ("Saddam is a gentleman") but the Pope has to respect his concern for the pastoral situation in the post-war period. Peter Hebblethwaite, Manchester Guardian Weekly, Feb. 17, 1991
The criticism has been lodged that I have been too harsh in suggesting Middle Eastern Christian bishops like Chaldean Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid have been overly accommodating vis a vis Saddam Hussein.
Certainly churches are in a difficult position in a police state. Christians enjoyed a degree of tolerance under the Baath Party (itself founded by a Christian), with the quid pro quo that church leaders toe the party line. For church leadership to carry water for a brutal government to avoid currying disfavor and resulting reprisals is perhaps understandable. But to reject action to end the abuse of many, in the interest of protecting the continuing safety of a few, does not lend itself to sermonizing.
It is clear Patriarch Raphael I, in particular, has gone to significant lengths to present a line congenial to the Saddamites, not only at home but on tours abroad. What is unclear is how much of this has stemmed from authoritarian pressure or fear for "the Church Persecuted," from a go-along-get-along pliancy toward tyranny, or from an immersion in the Gumbletonian peace-and-justice Left.
Shill? Dupe? Or terrified buffoon? There certainly have been instances in which Baghdad Bob was given a run for his money by Babylon Bidawid. A search on the Web turns up this Patriarch Raphael I sampler:
The Patriarch saluted the "courage" of Palestinian suicide bombers while likening Israelis to Nazis, according to this 2001 report.
Sandro Magister at Espresso Online wrote this past November on the "deafening silence from the heads of the Catholic Church regarding religious persecution underway in Iraq."
In recent days, Fides, news agency of the Vatican’s De Propaganda Fide office, published online a weighty dossier on the Chaldean Church.
In large part it’s a dossier on Iraq, home to a good number of Chaldean Catholics, with their patriarch, Raphael I Bidawid…
The dossier gives a positive image of Christians in this country. Yes, there is the threat of war, the lack of food and medicine, the plague of emigration. In addition, "from time to time, incidents take place, especially since the gradual spread of a fundamentalist current in the Arab world."
But on the other hand, Catholics in Iraq "don’t undergo discrimination" and enjoy "religious freedom," even if it’s "within the limits set by the state."
And what about Saddam Hussein? Says Msgr. Antonios Mina, representative of the Chaldean church to the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches:
"Relations with the government are good. In the government, there is vice premier Tareq Aziz, who is a Chaldean Catholic; his wife is a strong believer. Patriarch Raphael Bidawid is highly esteemed, respected by the civil authorities."
Nothing new to this point. On the contrary. On repeated occasions, Patriarch Bidawid has praised Saddam Hussein in an even stronger manner. Most recently, in an October interview with "Panorama," he said:
"Christians here are privileged. Saddam gives us what we want, listens to us and protects us." Regarding Islamic extremists: "They have infiltrated the veins of religious power and are trying to steer it in their direction. But the government keeps them in check. Saddam is capable; he fools them into being more open in order to uncover them. He will get them."
Previously, on Sept. 18, Bidawid told the missionary news agency Misna that he feared war especially for one reason:
"A new conflict would trigger an awful clash within the Muslim world between Sunnis and Shiites."
Implication: If Saddam goes, anarchy will break loose in Iraq, and without him as a shield, it will be the end for Christians.
The Patriarch was outspoken against UN sanctions on Iraq. St. Anthony Messengerinterviewed him in 2000 as he was making the rounds with Bishop Gumbleton:
"The embargo is inhuman and immoral," Patriarch Raphael continues. "It makes no sense. It is a matter of politics. After nine years, what has been the result?" He answers his own question with a melancholy phrase, “Disaster for the Iraqi people!"
He continues, "The government of the United States accuses the government of Iraq of creating this situation in which we are deprived of all necessities, including water and food. Now, [since 1997] under U.N. supervision, we have been able to trade oil for food, but people are still starving. We are giving millions of dollars of oil, but we are still starving."
See Hussein, Uday: Zoos, harems and hoarded aid shipments.
The Iraqis were going to suffer under Saddam, sanctions or no. It served Saddam's purposes to decry the embargo which his own bellicosity had brought upon the country. In trumpeting the anti-sanctions line, in blaming Iraqi hardship not on Saddam but on the embargo, churchmen opposed a UN attempt to bring to heel the dictator who was the real cause of the nation's suffering. (Many of those same churchmen now uphold the UN as an international policy arbiter, while continuing to oppose military action in Iraq at the very moment it has driven Saddam from power.)
In March 2001, again voicing opposition to action to control Saddam, the Patriarch warned US and British air strikes to enforce the "no-fly" zone would spark anti-Western anger in the region.
FIDES: Your Beatitude, what is your reaction to the recent bombings in
PATRIARCH RAPHAEL I BIDAWID: I have no words with which to condemn this use of force against the weak.
During the Second World War the allies accused the Nazis of using the right of force. Now the US and Britain are using force against the people of Iraq. They proclaim principles of humanity and human rights, but where do they apply them? They must realize that we Iraqis too have the right to life and dignity.
The Vatican, France, Italy and Russia have condemned the use of force and we -- the Church of Baghdad -- do the same.
FIDES: The American Secretary of State is visiting Israel; Bush and Blair will meet at Camp David. What is your forecast for the Middle East?
PATRIARCH: I am afraid that if the USA and Britain continue this way, the whole of the Middle East will be set on fire. This escalation of violence on the part of USA and Britain can push Iraq to retaliate out of desperation.
The whole of the Arab world is now against the Americans and the British, and ready to commit violence against the USA and Britain in their own countries.
It is time to start sincere dialogue to reach a solution. Blood and violence lead only to more blood and violence. Our people are ever more distressed and are ever more against the Americans and the British. The more Saddam is maltreated, the more he is applauded.
I appeal to the wisdom and prudence of the governors of these countries: think of the common good which peace can give to all, us and you. If we do not resume dialogue the ghost of a war is not improbable and we risk new chaos.
FIDES: What have the sanctions obtained?
PATRIARCH: Nothing-- and even the Americans admit this. The Iraqi government distributes rice, sugar, oil, tea: the harsher the embargo, the more generous the government in donations and rations. Certainly widespread poverty remains: a chicken costs about half a month's pay; people rely on help from relations abroad, but the situation is better than some years back. The government also distributes basic medicines. The sanctions are useless. You Westerners do not realize that an Arab can do without everything except his dignity. If you touch his dignity he will be as ferocious as a lion.
In 2000, the Patriarch offered kudos to Hans Blix in 2000 while decrying the "massacre of innocents" by the embargo.
The patriarch also commented on the proposal to appoint Hans Blix to head the new UN commission to monitor Iraq's disarmament: "I have never met Blix but France's opposition to the appointment of Rolf Ekeus and the support of Paris, Moscow, and Beijing for Blix, would make me think that he is a reliable person."
Again with Paris, Moscow and Beijing. On a related note: If you haven't yet seen it, do note this graph on Iraqi arms imports that sheds a revealing light on the relative morality of the UN Security Council.
Fides: American sources claim that Saddam has hidden his arms in Algeria, Sudan, and Libya.
Raphael I: That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. My country is under blockade, almost nothing can come in or go out. How could the government transfer arms? With a special tunnel built to smuggle arms that would reach to Algeria, Khartoum, or Tripoli? Do you really believe that Saddam has arms in his palaces? Even if he had, by now he would have already relocated them. Saddam's biggest worry right now, since he knows he cannot bear another conflict, is to avoid provoking a confrontation. The truth is that he wants the blockade removed and he's willing to risk everything in order to achieve it. And the people, unfortunately, are behind him all the way on this point. No people should be humiliated to this extreme. The people of Iraq believe it is better to die fighting than to continue suffering misery and humiliation.
A staple of press coverage of Chaldean Christians over the past decade or so has been the annual Christmas story.
A particularly choice example was the Christmas Eve story run by Agence France Press in 1994 that features high dudgeon from Saddam, with Amens from Christian clerics:
US acting like enemies of Jesus, Saddam says
BAGHDAD, Dec 24: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein Saturday condemned the United States and its allies for maintaining sanctions, accusing them of acting like the enemies of Jesus, in a televised Christmas message.
"The US government and other Western leaders, through their aggression and unjust blockade (..) are deliberately killing Iraqi children and elderly people," Saddam said in a speech addressed to the Iraqi people, the Arab nation, Christians and "all men of goodwill."
Referring to the crippling UN trade and oil embargo imposed on Iraq after its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Saddam said Washington and its allies "are no different from those who persecuted Christ and his early disciples, and they falsely claim to follow Christ." Christians make up around one million of Iraq's population of 16 million. Many of them have emigrated under the pressure of UN sanctions.
Saddam pledged that Iraq "will not bow to the arrogant ones' injustice" and "will keep up the Jihad (holy war) for freedom.
"We are profoundly confident that the blockade imposed by the US administration will be shattered (..) thanks to the steadfastness of the Iraqi people and with the help of the just countries, organisations and individuals."
Meanwhile Iraqi Christian leaders urged the United Nations to lift the sanctions in a special Christmas appeal published here.
"Celebrations are taking place, but instead of smiles, people's faces are covered in tears because of the unjust embargo imposed on our people," said Archbishop Avak Assadourian, leader of the Armenian Orthodox community, in a Christmas article published in Al-Iraq newspaper.
Father Thomas Marco of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Iraq's biggest Christian community, urged those behind the embargo to "be inspired by the meaning of this great festival and shed their blindness" by ordering a lifting of sanctions.
Russia, China and France have been calling for an easing of the sanctions since Baghdad recognised Kuwait's sovereignty last month, but the United States and Britain insist on full compliance with all UN resolutions.
They include demands for the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the return of Kuwaiti prisoners, war reparations and respect for human rights.
Iraqi troops were ousted from Kuwait by US-led coalition forces in February 1991.
Sound familiar? Meantime, here's a piece by Richard Tomkins that ran on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1990, in the Financial Times:
Fear and festivity as Christmas comes to Iraq
ODDLY, perhaps, for a predominantly Moslem country on the brink of war with the west, Iraq is celebrating Christmas.
Many Baghdad streets are strung with festive lights. Shops and restaurants extend the season's greetings to customers, and the souks have enjoyed a lively trade in fir trees.
One reason the Christmas festival thrives in Iraq is that it has become blurred with the new year celebrations which take place here, as in the west, on January 1.
The distinctive Yuletide dimension to the festivities, however, results from the influence of a 500,000 strong Christian community - at 3.5 per cent of the population, it is one of the biggest in the Middle East.
Easily the most numerous of the several Christian groups are the Chaldeans, an eastern offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church led by His Beatitude Raphael I Bidawid, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans.
Larger-than-life and enrobed in crimson, Patriarch Bidawid says the secular policies of the ruling Ba'ath Party - itself founded by a Syrian Christian, Michel Aflaq - have been good for Iraqi Christians.
'In former times, we have been badly treated, but under the lay regime of President Saddam Hussein, there is no discrimination against us,' he says.
Apparently backing up his assertion is the prominent role of Christians in society - the best known example being Mr Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister. Privately, some Christians say they still face disadvantages. Intermarriage with the Moslem community, for example, is forbidden unless they forsake their religion for Islam.
A more immediate fear, however, is that religious tolerance could be one of the first casualties if conflict breaks out with the west.
In the early stages of the stand-off, President Saddam's rhetoric was peppered with historical references to the crusades and threats of a jihad, or holy war, to defend the Arab nation.
Patriarch Bidawid moved to defuse the threat of religious divide by urging western leaders to leave Arab soil and interceding with President Saddam to tone down the anti-Christian propaganda. Christians, however, remain nervous. During the eight-year war with Iran they were at one with their compatriots in the battle against Islamic fundamentalism: but today's crisis has made their position ambivalent.
Traditionally well-educated and heavily represented in the middle class, many Iraqi Christians have friends, relatives or other contacts in the west. Some say they would feel a good deal more comfortable if they could join them.
For the moment, the near-total ban on foreign travel rules that out. But according to one apprehensive Christian: 'The day they let us leave, there is going to be an exodus.'
For depressing reading the history of the Church in the East can't be beat. The patriarchy of Constantinople was always under the heel of political power -- Christian emperors and then Sultans -- and their constant compromising with power shows in their continuing habits.
Chaldean Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid appears to stand within that long tradition.